A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
I have talked often of Congress Hall’s history as a summer White House for President Harrison and in a recent mythbusters column I dispelled the rumor that the hotel’s deed has a restriction preventing any building on the western side of the property. Thanks to Jack Wright’s book, Tommy’s Folly, readers are also familiar with the risk Thomas Hughes took in building his ‘Big House’ in 1816 and the difficulties the hotel faced in modern times.
All interesting topics, but there’s so much more to offer in the way of Congress Hall history. Today’s story begins four years before Thomas Hughes purchased the land, when Jonas Miller erected the first hotel to stand there. It’s important to remember that the original Congress Hall property was much bigger than what we see today, spanning from Windsor to Perry Streets and from the beach to Lafayette Street. This was long before Beach Drive (now Avenue) was constructed.
The land was subdivided twice in later years. Miller’s 1812 hotel stood at the northeast corner of the property by the intersection of Perry and Lafayette, where the Victorian Motel is currently located.
When Miller’s inn opened in 1812, it was Cape Island’s second hotel after Ellis Hughes’ Atlantic House. The hotel did very well and attracted the attention of Thomas Hughes, Ellis Hughes’ son. As you may know, Thomas Hughes bought the property, knocked down Miller’s hostelry and built his ‘Big House.’
Miller was a shrewd businessmen and he made a considerable profit from the deal. In the years after selling the hotel, he purchased a number of lots and cottages around town, until in 1835, he purchased the Congress Hall property back from Hughes. Since Congress Hall was much bigger than his original inn, Miller brought his son Waters in to help with management duties. His daughter, Pauline, later joined the family business as an entertainer in the hotel.
Jonas Miller continued his land speculation and purchased large empty lots, subdividing them into parcels to be sold for summer cottages. It was around this time that he cut the Congress Hall property in half, added Congress Street and created 13 building parcels. He also purchased a new home for his family, which still stands and is now home to the Copperfish Grill.
By the 1850s, Jonas Miller was considered one of the wealthiest men in America. He decided to retire from the hostelry business and sold Congress Hall to his son.
Much like his father, Waters had great ambition. He decided he wanted something more out of life than running a hotel.
Waters Miller found a buyer for Congress Hall in his sister Pauline’s new husband, Jacob Cake, who took over the property in 1863. Waters then went on to make a name for himself as a two-term mayor of Cape May and served as a New Jersey state senator from 1880 to 1886.